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Rodgers points to depth on defensive line

Posted Aug 2, 2012

Aaron Rodgers doesn’t envy the job his bosses, Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy, will have at the end of this month.

Whether the Packers quarterback looks around the practice field or the locker room, he sees good players who may not make the team. It’s a harsh reality, but a good reality for the Packers.

Rodgers has been throwing the ball to undrafted holdovers Tori Gurley, Diondre Borel and Shaky Smithson, but it’s highly unlikely they can all stay. Those receivers are being covered by cornerbacks Sam Shields, Davon House and Casey Hayward, who are leading an intense competition at their position. The pass rushers chasing Rodgers around Ray Nitschke Field are more numerous than in the past.

“This is going to be I think the most difficult cuts Ted and his staff and Mike have to do, because we’re deep,” Rodgers told reporters at his locker on Thursday, prior to the first night practice of training camp. “You look at that position over there to my left, the defensive line, there are a lot of guys in that group who are probably going to be playing big minutes for other teams, because we don’t have the room for them, but we’re so deep there.

“It’s tough, it’s frustrating, because you get to know guys, … but I’m excited about this team this year. We’ve got a lot of talent.”

Rodgers also has noticed, and likes, the energy and enthusiasm on display through the first week of practices. For that, he gives a lot of credit to the aforementioned defensive line group, which added veterans Daniel Muir (who played previously for the Packers in 2007) and Anthony Hargrove, plus second-round draft pick Jerel Worthy.

Their outgoing personalities have rubbed off on their linemates and other teammates, Rodgers said, and that has had a positive impact on both the camaraderie and intensity surrounding camp.

“It helped that we brought in guys who kind of have that hunger and that enthusiasm,” he said. “When you add guys to the mix like that, I think it just really amps up the practice and the energy level as a whole in the locker room.”

One of those defensive linemen, fourth-year veteran B.J. Raji, agrees. He feels this camp is the most competitive of his brief career so far, and that was exemplified on Wednesday night, when the players had a night off before transitioning to the new practice schedule that began on Thursday.

Raji said in past years with an evening to themselves, players might’ve stayed up until the wee hours in the dorms playing cards and “having a good time.”

“But come in last night and it was like a ghost town,” Raji said. “That means everyone is getting their rest because they know practice means a lot this year.”

Raji certainly has been practicing like he means it. In team drills he’s been quick and explosive off the ball, and in the one-on-one pass-rush drill he’s been difficult to block.

Two factors have played a role in his strong start, Raji said. The first is his attitude, which last year was focused too much on increasing the 7½ sacks he recorded in the 2010 regular season and playoffs, an impressive number for an interior lineman.

When the sacks didn’t come in 2011, “I kind of got down on myself,” he said. “Coming out of college a top-10 pick, you’re kind of looking for validation.” Making the NFC Pro Bowl roster despite a drop to three sacks helped provide that for Raji.

The second factor is a new offseason training regimen. At the Pro Bowl, Raji said Bears defensive end Julius Peppers introduced him to boxing workouts, which Raji tried prior to the start of the Packers offseason program and went back to afterward.

For about a month prior to training camp, Raji focused solely on boxing drills with an acquaintance and former Golden Gloves boxer back home in New Jersey. Teammates Charles Woodson and Jermichael Finley have dabbled in boxing, as well, and Raji believes the workouts have added “violence” to his game.

“It helped me a lot, with my wind, hand speed, punch velocity, footwork,” Raji said. “I can see it on the field.

“Offensive linemen are good. They tend to hold a lot, and if you’re not violent with your escapes, it’s going to be tough to get off those blocks.”

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